Friday, 10 December 2010

Forgotten Book - Big Business Murder

There is a good deal of period interest in Big Business Murder, by G.D.H. and M. Cole, my latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books. It was first published in 1935, when the husband and wife co-authors enjoyed a considerable reputation for their detective stories as well as in their capacity as leading socialist thinkers. Three years earlier, George Cole had published a book called The Intelligent Man’s Guide Through World Chaos (sadly, I’ve never seen a copy – perhaps the intelligent men all kept hold of theirs) and he was also a prominent economist, as well as a mentor of the future Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.

The novel begins with a gripping scene, at a board meeting of Arrow Investments. Kingsley Manson, the managing director, reveals to his colleagues that the business is founded on a swindle, which seems likely to unravel unless they all support his attempts to solve the problem. An honest director called Gathorne objects, but the others go along with Manson. After the financial dramas of 2008, some of the Coles’ points struck a surprisingly modern note, I felt. There is a timelessness about greedy, vain or naive people who think that business is all boom, and never bust. The scene was set for a great book.

Gathorne, predictably, is murdered, but after this the story rather falls apart. One of the directors, believing that Manson’s wife is the killer, tries to clear her by confessing to the crime. The Noble but Misguided Confession was a staple of Golden Age detective fiction and Agatha Christie was among those who used the device to complicate her plots. It can, however, be irksome if over-done, and the Coles over-do it badly, so that half the book is devoted to the ramifications of the false and foolish confession before Superintendent Wilson makes a belated appearance.

There are various references to the Nazis, or economic problems in Germany, and there are nice but all too brief touches of satire. The unlovable Inspector Ebenezer Jones is made to say, ‘I don’t hold with Socialism’ – the sort of in-joke that writers often enjoy introducing into their stories. The snag is that, rather than use the business scam as a context for a probing study of the pressures that may drive people to crime, the Coles came up with a half-hearted plot and Wilson solves the mystery in a very anti-climactic fashion. This is a book that is interesting, but for reasons other than those which the authors intended.


Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thanks for sharing this book. I have to admit, 'though I've heard of the Coles' work, I haven't read it. It's got such an interesting premise; sorry to hear it fell apart for you and that the end didn't live up to its promise.

Richmonde said...

Isn't that the plot of the Voysey Inheritance?

vegetableduck said...

Martin, I have Cole's Chaos.

It's very, very long.

I agree totally with your analysis of BBM. The Coles are classified by Symons as Humdrums, but I call them false ones in my manuscript chapter, because they usually aren't nearly as interested in plot mechanics as true Humdrums are. They actually are closer to Symons' farceuers, given their satirical bent.

Martin Edwards said...

Richmonde, I don't know The Voysey Inheritance. Can you tell us more?

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, I'm impressed! I am reading his wife's biography of him at the moment, which has some very strange features.
Is there often satire in the Coles books? I haven't read enough to know.

vegetableduck said...

Oh, do you mean her amazingly frank discussion of her husband's sexual nature? Yeah, I talk about that in the chapter. Margaret Cole was quite a blunt woman.

All these "Humdrums" writers are much more interesting personally than people think (well except maybe Crofts, although even he has a distinct personality).

Yes, there's a lot of satire in the Coles. You know how people always say their politics didn't intrude into their mystery fiction. Well, nonsense! When you think about it, it's pretty unlikely that a couple as politically committed as they were would have left it all out, as it were.

Satire is very notable in the Coles' mystery fiction. They didn't think of themselves as "Humdrum" at all (though the first book is a Crofts pastiche). They're not nearly as imaginative as Innes of course, but I would say their work definitely has a donnish satire element.

You read the Wade, maybe you'd like to read the Coles section. But in manuscript form it's not marked up for spoilers and there are quite a few. It's hard to discuss mystery writers in a substantive way without spoilers.

Anyway, probably I should email you on this, I think I'm taking up enough of your blogspace!

Glad you're bringing attention here to some of these writers. I wish more people were interested in them, even from just a historical perspective. There was more going on in the period than the Crime Queens and a few male attendants!

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, yes, I would love to read the Coles section!